Use your voice every time you need students' attention, and before long you won't have a voice. This is one reason teachers need non-verbal means of communicating with students. (Another reason is to avoid interrupting class.) The "teacher look," hand signals, and proximity are among the effective ways to redirect one or a few students without saying a word.
But getting the entire class' attention often requires a more noticeable approach, especially when students are working in groups. One option is to raise your hand as a cue for students to quiet down and raise their hands until the whole class catches on. The problem with this approach is that it can take a while for students to notice you've got your hand up.
Another option is to flip the light switch a couple of times, which can be effective unless your classroom gets so much natural light that students won't notice the blinking overhead lights. Another limitation of this approach is that it's inconvenient unless you're standing near the light switch.
What you need, then, is a quick, commanding way to get a message to the class without straining yourself or your voice. What you need is a whistle. And not just any whistle, but a train whistle, an idea I got from Jerry Cummins at a workshop he facilitated on cooperative learning. (A train whistle is better than a standard whistle because it's less likely to disturb other classes. Besides, don't you prefer the image of a conductor over that of a referee?)
A train whistle is ideal because you can use it any time from anywhere in the classroom. (It helps if you wear a tool belt like I did.) It also allows you to set up a code system where different numbers of toots have different meanings. One toot, for example, may signal a two-minute warning for the end of an activity; two toots may tell students to change their seating orientation; three toots may indicate that you need students' immediate attention.
The beauty of the train whistle is that it's great for both classroom culture and classroom management. Most children deal with more than enough serious stuff outside of school. Our classrooms must therefore not only be places where kids learn, but also places where kids laugh. And what kid wouldn't laugh at a teacher with a train whistle? (Some of my students let out a hoot with every toot.) At the same time, I'm not about gimmicks for gimmicks' sake. Everything we do as teachers should facilitate learning, and a train whistle does this by improving classroom efficiency.
A lighter classroom atmosphere and tighter classroom management--that's what a train whistle (along with a tool belt and other outside the box ideas such as Stand-Up Sleeping and Peace and Love Profanity "rules") did for my students and me, and can do for your students and you too.
NOTE: Check out this video clip from a teacher workshop to see me using my train whistle.
Image provided by GECC, LLC with permission.
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